Dem Quixote

Jim Pederson is a consummate politician: He's rich, well-connected, and not above pointing fingers at the opposition. He's also quite dull -- or, to be fair, at least unwilling to bite when he's baited with stupid questions from newspaper reporters. All these skills will come in handy should the former Arizona Democratic party chairman take Republican incumbent Jon Kyl's seat in the U.S. Senate next year. Pederson, a commercial real estate developer raised in Arizona, announced his candidacy earlier this month, not long after stepping down from a four-year stint as party chairman. He helped get Governor Janet Napolitano elected and revitalized a lot of dreary shopping malls in the Valley, and now he's ready to tackle politics firsthand. And frankly, any guy who wants to create a temperate outdoor restaurant that doesn't use a misting system gets my vote.

New Times: Why do you want to run for Senate? And please don't tell me you long to give back to the community.

Jim Pederson: Well, this represents a turning point in my life, as you can imagine. I've lived in Arizona all my life, and I care deeply about the issues facing our state.

NT: You mean ugly architecture? Illegal immigration? Phil Gordon?

Pederson: Well, I mean that the middle class haven't gotten a break, and that's true of the entire nation. I plan to stand behind the middle class, because they're the power in our country.

NT: Okay. But why would anyone run against Jon Kyl? I mean, Jon Kyl wears cowboy boots. In Phoenix, that practically ensures an election win.

Pederson: No. I think it's a myth that just because you put on a plaid shirt and boots, you win votes in Arizona.

NT: I think you're wrong!

Pederson: No. Especially in rural Arizona, I think people are a lot smarter than that. I plan a campaign based on issues and ideas. And [Kyl's] voting record hasn't been exposed to the people of Arizona. Once they learn he was the deciding vote on prohibiting Medicare from offering lower prescription drug prices, or that he's a vehement opponent of stem cell research, he's going to have a tough time explaining that to Arizona.

NT: You've said you'll fight for middle-class interests. What would those be? Little League? Poly blends?

Pederson: If you take all the issues that relate to health care and education, they affect the middle class disproportionately. Think about it: Our American middle class started after World War II, but they quickly developed into the backbone of this country. The middle class really helped develop this country as a world power, and there's an all-out assault on the middle class. And if it keeps going, we're not going to have a middle class. Most of President Bush's tax cuts were aimed at the super rich, which doesn't benefit the middle class.

NT: Republican party chairman Matt Salmon says you're "completely out of touch with voters' values." I guess he means because you're really rich and everything.

Pederson: I really didn't see the light until my mid-50s. It's true, I've been fortunate in my business, and I owe Arizona a lot, but my values stem from a much earlier life.

NT: One in which you were poor?

Pederson: My wife and I started this business with a paper clip and a piece of Scotch tape. And Matt Salmon is trying to tie me to the Eastern liberal establishment!

NT: You've promised to make immigration your top issue. But the Republicans have already called dibs on that issue: John McCain and Jim Kolbe are sponsoring a bill that --

Pederson: But they haven't come up with a sensible solution to illegal immigration. We need to find out who is coming into the country. A work visa program is needed, too. Kyl says, "These people who are already here have broken the law, and they have to go back to Mexico and stand in line." I'm telling you, the bill is DOA. It's not going anywhere. It doesn't have a chance, because it's pure pandering to the right wing. Which is not the way to get things done.

NT: You're known primarily as a developer of shopping malls. Let's talk about the shopping mall as a metaphor for politics.

Pederson: When you develop a shopping center, you're creating a people place. When I drive into one of our 25 shopping centers, I pretend I'm driving in for the first time. Is it people-friendly? How do you get in and out? What's your first impression? Does it provide a restaurant with outdoor dining?

NT: All important political questions.

Pederson: Well, what I mean is, I gave a challenge to my people: "I want you to create an outdoor dining area that you can enjoy in August, without misters."

NT: Wow.

Pederson: Well, misters are not people-friendly.

NT: They ruin hairdos.

Pederson: People in this country need to come together -- that's the shopping-mall metaphor. They're being separated into partisan camps. I think that's not what most people want. They want invested politicians. Not ones who, at the end of the day, just point fingers at the other party and then bury their heads in the sand. You have to keep working. We need to create a political environment that lets people have interactions with public officials, who come to the middle and offer what people are looking for. Like a shopping mall does.

NT: I heard you were hiring non-union people to build your malls. I saw someone on the street brandishing a "Shame on Jim Pederson" sign. What was that about?

Pederson: That was too bad. It was a labor union issue, a dispute we had with the carpenters' union. It was really beyond our control. We had a tenant contractor who worked for one of our tenants who used a non-union dry-waller. They picketed me instead of my tenant. We have worked that out.

NT: This is the sort of thing that will come up during your election, though. And you can bet someone's going to come after you about your company, the Pederson Group, having filed for bankruptcy protection during the real estate bust of the 1990s.

Pederson: Yes. But you have to remember that was a pretty heady time. A lot of people got into trouble at that time, partly because of the [savings and loan] crisis. If you were involved in real estate in the 1990s, you were lucky to survive. But it's important to note that we filed for reorganization, which is not a forgiveness of debt. We paid back most of our creditors. I'm not going to hide from that.

NT: I'm not saying yours is entirely a vanity candidacy. But your win seems like a long shot. Don't you think you can better serve the Democrats by getting one into office?

Pederson: Well, I know what you're talking about. You don't run against a two-term incumbent with access to unlimited resources. If we win, it will be based on our issues -- the things that we care about are things that Arizonans care about. Because right now, Arizona is going in the wrong direction, and we all know that the business as usual in Washington doesn't work anymore. People are attracted to candidates who express independence, not ones who are tied to special interests.

NT: Speaking of issues, what the hell are you going to do to get gas prices down?

Pederson: We're going to have to be honest with people. With world conditions being what they are, and with basic supply and demand, we are competing for the remaining supply of fossil fuel resources. The only permanent solution is the development of alternative sources of energy. We can reduce our dependence on foreign oil by making a massive investment in new research toward that end. That's not fantasyland.

NT: If you take office, can you promise me that you'll get Arizona prepared for a terrorist attack or natural disaster? I just know someone is going to fly a plane into Palo Verde nuclear power plant.

Pederson: It's true, it has to be the number-one priority of any government: to keep people safe. We have to invest those dollars wisely, and our resources allocated to keeping people safe have been misspent. I think the recent experience in New Orleans isn't unlike any other part of the country, in terms of preparedness for whatever emergency might occur.

NT: What's your opinion of the sitting Arizona senators?

Pederson: I admire Senator McCain's independence; he doesn't hesitate to stand up to his party and speak his mind. I admire him as a working public servant. Kyl is very partisan. [H]e's a workhorse, not a show horse, but if people don't know you, you're not doing your job. I think people know me, and I think they know, if I'm elected, I'll do my job.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela